The Keefer Family can trace its early roots to France and later to Germany. In the 11th or 12th century, when acquiring a surname became fashionable, the family selected "Le Tonnellier” (The Cooper). After a move to the German influenced region of Alsace (now France), the name was changed to Keiffer (translated to Cooper) because of the large cooperage (barrel making) business that was operated by the family for generations.
Immigrating to New Jersey in 1749, the Keefer family (spelling now changed to ensure proper pronunciation) remained loyal to the King during the revolutionary war. As a result, the newly formed U.S. government confiscated the family farm, and mandated that the farm be vacated once the two young boys reached adulthood.
In 1790, George, 17 and his brother 15, set out on foot to make the hazardous journey along Indian trails to Upper Canada in search of a new life. Crossing the Niagara River, they arrived to this current location and found a lone squatter and a small hut. The boys reached an agreement and purchased the property spending the next 2 years clearing land and building a ‘commodious’ log home. Once complete, the boys walked back to New Jersey and returned a short time later with the rest of the family. Upon their return, George received a land grant of 600 acres in the area now called Thorold.
George Keefer was born November 8, 1773 near Newton, N.J. and was son of George Kieffer and Mary Cooke (Conke, Conck). His first marriage in 1797 was to Catherine Lampman, and they had nine children. His second marriage was to Jane Emory, née McBride on June 8, 1815, with whom he had seven children. Thirdly, he married Mary Swaiz on June 2, 1836 then fourthly on Nov. 14, 1839 he married Esther Magdalen Secord.
George died in 1858 at the ripe old age of 84.
George was a farmer, cabinetmaker, surveyor, militia officer, justice of the peace, and businessman. He built two saw mills and operated a flour mill, shipping his product to Montreal and England. George was also a magistrate and active in the Lincoln Militia rising to the rank of Captain by 1815. He was active at the battles of Beaverdams, Chippawa, and Lundy’s Lane. A "Record of the Library of Niagara” founded in Niagara on the Lake in 1800, details in all probability the first Public Library in Canada. George was an active contributor and subscriber.
In about 1750 George Keefer’s father, then 10 years old, went to live near Paulins Kill, Sussex County, N.J., with his stepfather, Frederick Saveraine, and his mother, Ann Waldruff (widow of Samuel Kieffer, an Alsatian Huguenot). Within a few years the family operated two farms and a distillery, and was sufficiently well off to own a household slave. George Kieffer married Mary Cooke and they had four children (George, Jacob, Samuel, and Mary) before the American revolution tragically intervened. He joined the Queen’s Rangers to fight the rebels only to fall victim to army fever (probably typhus) in 1783. After the war Mary Kieffer remarried. She retained temporary possession of the family estate, but, on coming of age, her eldest son, George, faced the prospect of having it confiscated because of his father’s loyalism.
In 1790 Keefer, his brother Jacob, and several other lads from Sussex County in similar circumstances set out for Canada to look for land on which to make new beginnings. The Keefers located and began clearing a tract near present-day Thorold and in 1793 guided their family and a small herd of cattle overland to their rude farm. Once again the family began to prosper, assisted by a generous land grant; in 1797 George married Catherine Lampman, who had also made the trek from New Jersey, and children began to arrive at about the rate of one every 18 months. In addition to farming he worked as a cabinet-maker and about 1807 was appointed a deputy provincial land surveyor.
George Keefer remained ardently loyal during the War of 1812, joining the 2nd Regiment of Lincoln militia as an ensign at the outbreak of hostilities. In 1813 his house was commandeered as a hospital by American occupation forces and his wife died of army fever. His 16-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, assumed the trying burden of caring for the other children while she performed nursing chores for the invaders (one of whom later returned to marry her). Keefer rose to the rank of captain early in 1814; his company was active on the Niagara frontier throughout that summer, seeing action in July at the battle of Lundy’s Lane and in October at the engagement at Chippewa (Welland) River. He retained his captaincy in the 2nd Lincoln until 1828, when advancing age and declining interest led him to resign his commission.
After the war, Keefer opened a store, built a grist-mill on Twelve Mile Creek, and married Jane Emory, a widow with five children of her own. The future must have seemed promising for they had seven more children. In 1817 Keefer, who had become a justice of the peace three years earlier, and twelve of his neighbours replied with considerable satisfaction to the questionnaire of Robert Gourlay* on the state of settlement in Thorold Township. Its soil, they reported, could produce 15 to 30 bushels of excellent winter wheat per acre; crops of hay, oats, buckwheat, and barley were also good. The prospering township, their reply further revealed, had a population of 830 and contained a grist-mill, four sawmills, a linseed-oil mill, and several mercantile shops and taverns.
Keefer and John DeCow offered every encouragement when their friend and fellow mill-owner, William Hamilton Merritt*, proposed stabilizing the supply of water on Twelve Mile Creek by linking it to the Chippewa River, a project which developed into a plan to connect lakes Erie and Ontario by canal. Beginning in 1818 Keefer, DeCow, and Merritt conducted preliminary surveys, petitioned the provincial assembly for incorporation as a canal company, and organized local meetings to win public approval. Merritt needed men like Keefer, whose influence among landowners along the proposed route of the canal (which required 30 acres of Keefer’s own land) would help in the negotiation of the transfer of property rights. The Welland Canal Company was chartered in January 1824; Keefer subscribed for 25 shares and that summer, after Receiver General John Henry Dunn had refused the position, he was elected its first president. Merritt soon realized, however, that if he were to raise enough money in Canada and abroad to complete the canal, he would require someone with much greater prestige than Keefer at the head of the company. Dunn was again approached but did not immediately accept. Thus it fell to Keefer to let the first construction contracts and turn the first sod on 30 Nov. 1824. However, the growing scope of the scheme and its financial requirements quickly eclipsed such local notables as Keefer. Replaced by Dunn the following year, he drifted into the background, playing a minor financial role in support of Merritt and Dunn and attending board meetings regularly throughout the Niagara District but only infrequently at York (Toronto).
Keefer nevertheless made good use of the Welland Canal. Having obtained from the company free land opposite the site of what would become lock 34, he built a mill there in 1827 and waited for the canal to be completed – a bold declaration of faith and, for a time, a source of local amusement. Eventually the canal did arrive, providing upon its completion in 1829 essential water-power for the mill and a means of transportation.
Keefer was an enterprising, even-tempered, and widely respected patriarch who devoted himself to the formidable task of providing for a large, extended family. His last child was born when he was 52 and he was 60 when he lost his second wife in 1833. With several small children still at home, however, he remarried twice more. As he grew older he had the satisfaction of seeing his family well educated and firmly established in Canadian society as engineers, doctors, civil servants, and lawyers. The Welland Canal had captured the imagination of Keefer’s boys and its construction, repair, and rebuilding provided them with unusually advantageous opportunities for technical training and employment: three sons (George, Samuel*, and Thomas Coltrin*) learned or practised their trade there as civil engineers. Under the patronage of William Hamilton Merritt, who never forgot Keefer’s early support, they rose to places of distinction at the head of the emerging Canadian engineering profession. A fourth son, Jacob*, built one of the largest flour-mills in Canada on the banks of the canal at Thorold in 1845–47.
Like most of his contemporaries, George Keefer suffered greatly from events beyond his control. War made him a refugee and a soldier; it destroyed his patrimony and carried off his father, his first wife, and one of his sons. But in peace he prospered and his family flourished. Moreover, Keefer and his neighbours on Twelve Mile Creek possessed the vision and determination, if not the means, to improve their world with an ambitious scheme, the Welland Canal.
Photos from left to right: First Canal Thru Thorold, Keefers first mill 1827
John Keefer was born January 13th, 1813. His mother Catherine died of typhoid fever contracted while nursing sick and wounded American soldiers only a few months after his birth, on this site.
After his mother died, John was taken to Erie Pennsylvania and raised by his sister. Returning to Thorold as a young man, John was a successful merchant and farmer.
John lived in the original log home located on this property for over 40 years. The log home was demolished to make room for the current day mansion. At the time the mansion was built the property was known as "The Orchard, Residence and Garden, of John Keefer” and was a block of land 6 acres in size.
Located directly in front of the log home was Thorold was a general store and post office, opened by Johns father just after the war of 1812.
John and his wife had 4 sons including Hugh Keefer who acted as the General Contractor in the building of the present day mansion. John died at home, November 6th, 1892.
Son of George Keefer and his second wife Jane McBride, Augustus Keefer was born on October 21st, 1819 in the original log home located on this site. Augustus, settled in Ottawa where he married and was a leading lawyer and railway financier in the early years of the capital then called Bytown.
In 1847, Augustus took in a young articling student, Samuel Strong. Augustus held a keen interest in Samuel and provided him the foundations for a distinguished legal career. Strong later went on to serve as a legal adviser to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. He also created the legislative proposal for the creation of a national supreme court, where he would later serve as Canada’s Chief Justice. Strong continued to credit Keefer throughout his career for his training.
Samuel Keefer, George’s son from his first marriage, attended Upper Canada College and was heavily influenced by the member’s of the engineering community that constantly visited his father at their home. When he was not in school, Samuel worked as a labourer on the building of the canal.
At the age of 30, Samuel was appointed to the highest engineering position in Canada, First Chief Engineer of Public Works. This was a significant position. Samuel oversaw the expansion of the Welland Canal, building of the stone locks on the 2nd Canal as well as development of several smaller canals, particularly along the St Lawrence and Richelieu Rivers.
In 1843 he built the first suspension bridge in Canada at Ottawa, called the Union bridge. The structure connected Ottawa and Hull.
In 1853 Samuel resigned his position of public service to become an engineer for the Grand Trunk Railway. While in this capacity, he worked with his half brother Thomas on a number of projects, including rights of way and surveys of bridge crossings. Samuel was also responsible for the construction of the Brockville Tunnel in 1854. This 500 metre tunnel is still in use today.
In 1869 Samuel built the longest suspension bridge in the world at that time at Niagara Falls with a span of 400 metres. The design won Samuel a Gold Medal at the Paris Exposition in 1878.
He was Second President, following his half brother, of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. He held the positions of Civil Engineer; Chief Engineer and Commissioner of Public Works; Inspector of Railways and was engaged in many public works, including the Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence at Montreal and the Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls. Samuel was also a Fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute in London.
In 1859 Samuel returned to public service and selected the plans for the new Parliament buildings in Ottawa. He not only directed construction, but arranged the three buildings as an open quadrangle as they are today.
First Fallsview Suspension Bridge 1869
The second son of George, by his first wife, Jacob Keefer was born November 8th, 1800. After the early death of his mother, Jacob moved to Erie Pennsylvania, to live with his sister until adulthood, after which he returned to Thorold.
Jacob operated a general store and was Postmaster of Thorold for fifty years. He was also a Magistrate and School Superintendent. He married and had fifteen children, only seven of whom lived to adulthood.
In 1845 Jacob Keefer founded and built the largest flour mill in Canada and called it Welland Mills. This mill is located in Thorold and later became the Maple Leaf Flour Mills. Today the building is the only remaining original mill of the Maple Leaf Flour Mills Company.
The Welland Mills was capable of manufacturing 300 barrels of flour per day and the store house was capable of storing 70000 bushels of wheat and 5000 barrels of flour. The cooperage, when in full operation, employed 12 hands.
The Welland Mills went on to have many important owners. Thomas Rodman Merritt, son of William Hamilton Merritt, owned a one-third interest in the Welland Mills in 1858. The Howland family controlled the business for a number of years thereafter.
Welland Mills was designated as a heritage building in 2005 and is now owned by Keefer Developments Ltd. The building will house retail and residential apartments with eight town homes being built on the Mill's adjacent property.
Hugh Forbes Keefer was born October 4, 1848 on this site. In 1866, Hugh fought in the Fenien raids, giving him a taste of adventure at an early age. In his early years, he and his father John were partners in a general store.
By 1879 Hugh had given up merchandising and was traveling the North West United States searching for rail routes across the mountains. Hugh wrote a letter to the editor of the Thorold Post:
"I am one of a party of six…we have a splendid outfit…three fine spring wagons, good mule teams, two good tents, lots of blankets, lots of grub of good quality, six new Sharps rifles, and enough ammunition to stand off all the Indians in the West”
Hugh further detailed his encounters with Indians particularly those from Chief Sitting Bull’s camp, noting that they were "a bad looking set, and not pleasant to meet on the open prairie.”
Hugh was a colourful personality and did not fit the typical contractor profile. His adventures made him a wildly romantic figure in Thorold. He is said to have accumulated large sums of money at U.S. gambling tables, and to have been a frequent gambling partner of Jesse James. Rumours also swirled that he married Jesse James’ sister, although this has not been proven.
After completing much exploration for various railways, including the CPR and selecting routes through the mountains, Hugh returned to Thorold in 1886.
Hugh acted as general contractor on behalf of his father and likely financed the building of the present day mansion. Reported as one of the most amazing houses from Rochester to Toronto on the day it was completed, the historic grand mansion almost bankrupted the family. The number of steps leading to the house was reported to be designed to represent the number of cards in a euchre deck.
In 1890, Hugh built Vancouver's first sewer system and further established his reputation as a contractor and property speculator. By the turn of the century he owned real estate, granite and sandstone quarries and a brickyard. Hugh died in 1912.
Born November 4th, 1821 Thomas Coltrin Keefer, was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto and in 1838 began his career as an engineer. He worked on the Erie and Welland Canals until 1845.
Thomas C. Keefer was a pre-eminent canal and railway engineer and respected author. He was President of both the Canadian and American Societies of Civil Engineers. He is also known as the, "Dean of Canadian Engineers” and credited for developing engineering in Canada as a profession with high ethical standards of conduct both on and off the job.
In 1850 he was commissioned by the government to survey the rapids of the St. Lawrence River in order to improve shipping lanes. He was also asked to explore the country between the head-waters of St. John’s in New Brunswick and the St. Lawrence River.
In 1851 Thomas resigned from government service and was appointed Chief Engineer of the Toronto and Kingston section of the Grand Trunk railway. During this time he made preliminary surveys for a bridge over the St. Lawrence. The present Victoria Bridge being the outcome of his plans. He constructed water-works for Montreal, Hamilton, Ottawa, and other cities.
Thomas was Canadian Commissioner at the International Exhibition in London, 1851, and Chief Commissioner at the Paris Exposition in 1878
The engineering dominance of the Keefer’s was further enhanced when Thomas married Elizabeth McKay. The McKay family constructed and lived in what is now Rideau Hall. In fact at least one of Thomas’ children was born at Rideau Hall while the Keefer’s lived there.
Later in life, Thomas and his family resided at Earnscliffe in Ottawa, the majestic former home of Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. It is perched on a cliff overlooking the Ottawa River and is now home to the British High Commissioner. Thomas knew the home was well constructed, as his brother in law John McKinnon built the magnificent home.
The descendants of Thomas Keefer enjoyed great success in the engineering field. Two of his sons were prominent in the field, as was a nephew and a grandson. Keefer engineers drove the railway through the Rocky Mountains; built infrastructure in Vancouver and developed mining operations.
Thomas was active in his profession into his 80’s and 90’s. He was almost eighty years old when he delivered a keynote address to the Royal Society of Canada. He spoke of water power or Canada’s newest resource called ‘white coal’. He foresaw railroads operating on electricity; hoped for cleaner manufacturing plants and an end to the ‘poisonous smoke’ associated with coal operations. Thomas died at the age of 92 on January 7th, 1914.
Photos from left to right: Philosophy of Railroads, Hamilton Water Works